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The meat of the matter

At this genuine chophouse, the meat is big, the drinks are big, and the best part is Bascom's serves more than just beef.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 7, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Bascom’s, the reincarnation of Pepe’s near Feather Sound, has huge steaks, but try the veal chop and the excellent starters and sides.
CLEARWATER -- Whether we have enough steak houses is irrelevant and not a question for me. I thought we passed the tipping point about three chains and a coupla $30-porterhouse joints ago.

The answer from the market is clear: No, no, and hell no, we'll never have enough steak houses.

Which is why I take some comfort that our latest, Bascom's, calls itself a chophouse. Part of me likes to imagine a genuine old chophouse, one step up from a tavern and, forgive me, a manly place where the meat and the drinks are big, the frills few and the service surly. Mostly I'm glad someone knows steak isn't the only form of red meat.

It's not that I don't like beef, it's just that true carnivores like the taste of meat on the bone, which distinguishes a chop from most steaks.

There are relatively few chops in the world, but I love them all. The veal chop at Bascom's shows why, a long curving bone blossoming into a two-inch thick cut of nicely marbled flesh with its crust of meat and fat almost caramelized by fire. It didn't look lonely on the plate. It looked magnificent.

The term "chophouse" itself has been recently revived by theme-mongers to describe a restaurant concept that has a more creative, lusty approach to the green-velvet, red-meat formula of big bucks steakhouse. The new chophouses do have $25 a la carte steaks, but starters and sides go beyond fried onion things and creamed spinach, the kitchen turns out snappy sauces and clever stuffings, and they stock or brew fine beers and ales as well as wines.

Bascom's isn't quite so daring, but it goes a little beyond the accepted local and chain recipe. Bascom's skips the folderol of the rolling raw meat display, moderates prices and stretches out a little in appetizers.

However, many diners are on familiar ground here. This is the reincarnation of Pepe's, the cultural heart of Ulmertonia. The Bullards, owners of the Durango chain, gave Pepe's fresh paint, woodwork and a makeover to create their entry in the steak de luxe game, sort of their answer to Outback's Fleming's.

Autographed photos of Evel Knievel and Vanna White are gone, but you'll recognize some of the artwork, as well as the big bar in the center and the best of the old staff, who still work the door and the floor.

Besides, a chophouse menu isn't far removed from the meat-'n'-papas fare of our old Spanish restaurants (which loved monster pork chops). A place that concentrates on pure high-priced meat may fit middling Pinellas better and suit the appetites of the road warriors who fill the nearby hotels. Barely two months after opening, Bascom's packs 'em in like Pepe's in its heyday. Even on a weeknight, the crowd runs from new clients in suits and cell phones to sociable old friends in shorts and caps, while the upstairs room hosts private meetings and meaty sales pitches. Not a recessionary caution in sight.

Join them and you'll find the most variety in appetizers. The kitchen smokes its own duck (a good effort although mine was too chilled and dry) and has a lot of fun with oysters, like frying them in extra crispy panko crumbs and tarting them up with green tomato salsa. There's also black bean soup (a favorite of supper clubs as well as Cuban cafes), plus the usual suspects. Shrimp were cold jumbos done just right with a mild remoulade, but a flat presentation made me yearn for a shrimp cocktail of old.

While most sides were familiar, most cost a buck or two less than big shot spots. Still I don't like to pay a premium for colossal asparagus spears (I like mine thin and crisp) except as an excuse for hollandaise. I'd pay happily for savory mushrooms, carrot puree or grilled artichokes, but that's not in the plan. What redeems the sides is a small Gorgonzola souffle, a perfect idea.

Steaks do lead the menu (up to a 26-ounce porterhouse) with prime rib offered as a special; some is prime, the rest is classed Chairman's Reserve, a private trademark; all is dry aged. Of those I tried, New York strip at medium rare was best, an inch-thick pounder with a crunchy edge. A 12-ounce filet was less satisfying, which may have been my fault: I asked for it medium rare with a bit of a crust, a bit of a challenge for a 2-inch filet, so it came out too dry.

I had better luck on the seafood side, which includes such Spanish hints as snapper with almonds and grouper a la rusa. I went for simple, big sea scallops on spinach with grilled red onions. They were perfectly cooked, lightly floured and seared just enough for a copper crust, without overcooking the interior. They needed more than onions grilled in balsamic -- leftover hollandaise from the asparagus did fine.

The wine list is primarily California and surprisingly modest (and modesty is rare with expense-account steaks) but it does include a few unusual choices, including Pedroncelli's Mother Clone zinfandel. Breads show promise (raisin pumpernickel and olive baguette were best), but they should be top of the line to match desserts like great creme brulee, berries with sweet cream and chocolate bread pudding. Sadly peach pie, which could have set a higher standard and shown more creativity, has been taken off the menu.

The ultimate effect is tantalizing. Bascom's is a solid improvement over Pepe's in its last days, and could be an alternative to the standard high-priced steak house.

A true chophouse, old or new, could be that. Bascom's takes a small step in a new direction. I hope it continues.

BASCOM'S CHOP HOUSE STEAKS & FRESH SEAFOOD

3665 Ulmerton Road, Clearwater

(727) 573-3363

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 to 2:30 Monday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Reservations: Recommended

Details: Full bar; wheelchair access good; smoking section provided.

Special features: Private room available

Prices: Lunch, $6.95 to $9.95; dinner entrees, $12.95 to $29.95.

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